The Authority of Managers in Management Development

Professor Morten Knudsen reflects on, “Authorising managers in management development?,” an article by Knudsen, Magnus Larsson, and Mette Mogensen published in Management Learning.

Leaders need authority. But authority is not something leaders have or own. Authority is relational and based on the recognition of a common source of authority.

In our article, we analyze how an ambitious management and leadership development program (MLDP) had the aim of strengthening the managers’ authority but in fact risked damaging it. In a qualitative study of both the MLDP and the daily practices of the managers, we observed how the managers who most extensively adopted the organizational view of the leadership development program were also the managers who ended up having problems in establishing authority relations.

The explanation for this surprising observation lies in the notion of organization presented in the MLDP. The MLDP (re)produced a unitarist organizational text, that is an organizational view that assumes that all the members of the organization have – or should ideally have – the same goals and perspectives. The article demonstrates how this unitarist organizational text failed in authorizing participating managers in their leadership practice as it clashed with the plurality of perspectives and interests in the organization. It was not recognized as a source of authority by employees and collaborators. The more the managers participating in the MLDP adopted the organizational view of the program, the greater difficulties they had in achieving the goals in their managerial practice. The article concludes with reflections on practical implications of this troubling result.

Headshots of authors Morten Knudsen, Magnus Larsson, and Mette Mogensen.
Morten Knudsen, left, Magnus Larsson, and Mette Mogensen

This article is the most recent publication in an innovative investigation of how management and leadership development (MLD) may have unintended consequences. In a previous article, we analyze how the reflexive practices of a MLDP have a conservative effect (opposed to the intended developmental effect), as our fieldwork demonstrates that the participating managers instead confirm each other in their current practices.

In another article, we investigate the notion of organization produced in a MLDP program. Inspired by Glifford Geertz’ concept of religion, we develop the notion of the deep organization, as a concept describing the ideal view of the organization inherent in a leadership program. We used it to conceptualize how the organizational view on the one side was empirically inept and on the other side risked making the managers immune to experience-based learning. In a quantitative study, we have shown how manager identification with and commitment to the organization decreased considerably after their completion of the MLDP, another detrimental and unintended effect of the program.

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